Following the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, women have been sharing their stories of sexual harassment online using the hashtag #metoo. Here, Shaimaa Khalil writes about her first experience of harassment as a child growing up in Egypt.
There’s one particular day – soon after I turned 11 – that I can’t forget.
I was at my grandparents’ house and for the first time I’d been allowed to go out with a cousin and her friend, without any adults – three girls on our own, out on our first adventure.
“Be careful. Don’t go too far and don’t spend your money on stupid things,” my grandma warned us. She meant ice cream – and yes, we were planning to spend our money on that.
I was excited, but nervous. This needed to go well if I was to stand a chance of ever going out on my own!
“OK Shaimaa,” I remember thinking. “No falling, no fighting, no losing your money.” I should have added: “No getting sexually harassed by teenage boys.” But how could I know?
In the busy summer streets of Alexandria, we hadn’t realised we were being followed. But three boys walking behind started bumping into us. Then one of them groped me.
All I could do to escape our tormentors was walk ahead as fast as I could, with my cousin and her friend trying to catch up.
But they kept following us.
The three of us held hands and rushed back toward my grandparents’ house.
The boys were right behind. Now verbally harassing us.
I was frightened, but also angry. These boys had ruined my big day. I turned around and yelled: “Kifaya! Enough!”
“Kifaya!” one of them echoed, mocking me.
Later on, my mother chastised me. “You talked to them?” she fumed. “You don’t talk to someone who’s harassing you … you just keep going. That’s what they want – if you engage and make a scene, they win.”
My grandma chimed in. “Were you loud? Were you laughing and being silly for no reason? I know how you can get, Shaimaa.”
I tried to remember if I’d laughed. I probably had. I was having fun – until I got sexually harassed.
“And why that sleeveless shirt? It’s too short, your whole bottom is showing,” she went on.
I had no idea how the conversation turned from me complaining about three horrible boys and what they did to me, to my being blamed for their actions.
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It was the first time I was sexually harassed but of course not the last. Some later incidents were much worse. But that day had a lasting effect. It informed the way I felt about walking the streets of Egypt and how I behaved in them.
All my life I wanted the freedom to do things on my own, and here I was, confronted with the reality for Egyptian women – that with the freedom to be in the streets came harassment.
My mother laid down some rules:
1. It will happen. It’s normal.
2. Don’t smile. Frown preferably.
3. Walk fast. Don’t linger.
4. Wear long shirts that cover your behind.
5. Do not bring attention to yourself in any way.
In the years to come, these rules would sometimes work, but often wouldn’t.
Sexual harassment would become a part of mine and my friends’ lives. Our experiences varied from verbal harassment, to inappropriate touching, to groping, to having men try to rip our clothes off.
The culprits were everyone from random men on the streets – shopkeepers, doormen- to teachers, co-workers and relatives.
But we wouldn’t dream of speaking up. As with all Egyptian women, we had to balance harassment on the streets against more restrictions at home.
In 2013 a UN report said that 99% of the women it surveyed in Egypt had been sexually harassed. “We don’t need a report,” one of my friends laughed at the time. “Just come and live with us for a bit!”
A recent poll suggests that Cairo is the world’s most dangerous megacity for women, but I can attest that my city also lives up to this scandalous reputation.
Things have moved on quite a bit since I was 11. Young women are now much more vocal. There have been campaigns against sexual harassment and law enforcement takes it more seriously.
Yet all of this hasn’t stopped the harassers.
I don’t live in Egypt now, but when I visit I can feel myself tense up. I still have my invisible armour – those rules my mum set out. I’m always on guard when I’m alone in the streets.
I have an eight-year-old niece who reminds me so much of myself when I was her age. Soon enough she’ll want to venture out on her own.
And here’s what I’ll probably tell her: “Don’t laugh, don’t linger, and if something happens, call someone and get back home.”
But here’s what I really want to tell her: “You look beautiful. Laugh, have fun, enjoy yourself – and if some horrible person harasses you, shout, make a scene and defend yourself! And always, always remember: it is not your fault!”